A boy holds his younger brother in Khulna, Bangladesh where there are over 34 million children living in poverty. © Mike Lusmore

It’s plain to see that people here in Bangladesh don’t have as much money in their pockets as the average westerner. The majority of children don’t get the education, nutrition and the healthcare that someone from the UK like myself would expect to be able to provide for their family.

A recent UNICEF director stated that more than half of Bangladesh’s 68 million children live in poverty. The boy pictured above is photographed with his younger brother in the middle of the day on a street with more rubbish strewn over it than a friday night in Cardiff. If it was your kid you would probably want them to be in school, but like many Bangladeshi children this one probably works to earn money for their family.

It’s important to realise how lucky you are if you can choose your favourite cuisine for dinner, decide whether you’re a MAC or PC and earn a salary that even as a photographer dwarfs that of a family here in Bangladesh and that most certainly puts food on your table and clothes on your back.

That said I’m not sure the photograph at the top of this post is an appropriate way to approach these stories even though it is a method widely used in the media.

I’m talking about the use of black & white photographs of the poor in third world countries that news outlets often use and that more travellers seem to end up with than hangovers. The stero-typical poor …………(insert nationality here) person staring blankly at the camera and then converted using the ‘Poverty’ filter in photoshop that we see more often than a hipstamatic print.

Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love black and white photography and some of my favourite photographers shoot almost solely in the medium. I’m currently shooting a project in black and white myself! In fact it was David from duckrabbit that gave me the skills (and some of the bits) to develop my own photographs for the first time and I think it is a hugely important process to be involved in that is hugely fun and produces the most beautiful images. I just see more and more articles about impoverished countries and their people that are illustrated with black and white imagery that’s clearly there to make me feel sorry for the people in the picture/story. All it really seems to do is make me think ‘why can’t I see the original colour pictures?’ and that ‘this is another dreary story that inevitably involves Bono’.

I mean I’m not talking about the photographers/artists who decide to shoot in black and white film all the time. I’m talking about the editors who are turning colour to black and white to get me to engage with the story, when in reality it’s making me want to disengage…I mean I don’t think the photographer is handing these pictures into the desk in black and white so it’s an editorial decision. Which combined with the way the story is written and the facts are presented is hugely influential to the way the story is being told..

The Africa page on The Guardian is all a bit mono-tone today..

I was inspired to write the post after logging onto the Guardian yesterday and seeing a photograph (which is now gone…doh!) on the front page of four young black children staring blankly into the camera illustrating a story about Ghana.

It was a good story if you read it through to the end but the picture didn’t really make me want to read. And the massive irony was that the story was quite positive about Ghana’s hard work to be a leading light for other African countries and that a new investment program was going to iron out some of the current problems….yes Bono was mentioned. But could they have used a more inspiring picture of this beautiful country and their people, one that made me think they had made some positive progress? A picture paints a thousand words and if we don’t connect with it straight away we may not even read the headline.

Lets take our kid from Khulna in the picture at the top of the page for example…..this kid…

The same boy...the same amount of poverty but a different story.. © Mike Lusmore

He was just one of the many kids that asked me in their best Benglish (pointing) to take their picture whilst I strolled around Khulna to soak up some atmosphere. I took about 5 or 6 frames of the kid and like a lot of the Bangladeshi children they always start off by staring at you so I try and take a few by which time they are all embarrassed as their friends and family gather around the picture and usually crack a smile.

I’ve lost count of the number of staring children photographs I have seen when in reality these children play games just like yours, in many cases go to school just like yours and have fun just like yours.

A lot of the time and especially in Bangladesh they just haven’t ever seen a white person carrying around a big camera. I mean we visited a village the other day and Rajib (you know Rajib the man who locates beer and tigers..) told us they had never seen a white person there before…ever.  Now you don’t get that when you go travelling in Thailand! The facts at the top of the page are still true and by western standards Bangladesh is still a very impoverished nation. But according to the statistics (at unicef) more than 80% of the kids are enrolled in education, it’s just that school finishes by 1pm and in a nation as feverishly busy as it is here people pitch in at all ages.

So yes, Bangladesh is poor when you measure wealth in iphones, cars, HD tv and the distance to your local Starbucks – there is no Starbucks in Bangladesh… But the country is rich in many other ways and has a thriving agriculture industry with soil so rich in nutrients that if you throw your apple core out the window there will be a tree there on your return journey. It’s full of positive, hard working people many of whom live very fruitful, if a little different from that of people the west’s lives. Yes they could do with help from better off nations but I think we should see the positive in them and invest in that, not feel sorry for them and give them a hand out.

Isn’t that the difference between the black and white photograph here and the colour one? One makes us feel like we should give money because we feel guilty about the huge difference in our lives. And the other makes you see that these are real people that are worth investing some time, some science, some of our knowledge, some of our experience, some of our technological expertise and some of our money in to make their lives better. That’s the story we’ve been blessed to be paid to come to Bangladesh and tell.

  • Agree with most of what you say as far as how B&W is used- and your cultural observations as to wealth, etc… Color can detract from a certain “message” with all its added and often random information (ie- pretty and/or distracting colors). B&W can be more somber, with it’s more minimalistic palette. It may be nitpicking, but I think that it may weaken your argument when using a very similar (but different), color photo in which the child is smiling- as opposed to the original, non smiling version (in B&W) to compare and contrast the two mediums directly (almost like those deceptive before/after shots that use different lighting and shooting angles).

    No doubt, however, that a more equal balance presenting both sides of “these” stories need to be shown- whatever the medium used.

    • Hey Stan,

      I’ve been away from the net for a bit so it’s a slow reply. I guess I was illustrating the b&w thing and the all so easy misery portrait with the whole killing two birds with one stone type thing. An equal balance of what is going on is always required as you said. That way you get to use your brain a little and think about what’s going on and make your own mind up about the situation.

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